Recalling the humble mouse, spiritual mentor Priscilla Stuckey reflects on the independence of success and effort and the predominance of nature’s mercy.
Source: It’s All Mercy
Recalling the humble mouse, spiritual mentor Priscilla Stuckey reflects on the independence of success and effort and the predominance of nature’s mercy.
Source: It’s All Mercy
Re-posted from The Atlantic, May 9, 2017
What makes all this perhaps surprising is that the novel is so strange, if beautifully so, imagining as it does a breed of humanistic dogs, the result of brutal experiments, that walk and talk and attempt to coexist with polite society in New York City. The novel comes to us in the form of journal entries, excerpts from an opera, and other “real” evidence, framed and explained by Cleo Pira, a woman assigned to write a magazine article about the dogs. Her explorations delve into the past, including the hideous experiments of the 19th-century Prussian surgeon who created the monster dogs. The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.
Read more here.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s response to the Trump administration pulling down its website detailing information about climate change: putting up his own.
The new section of the City of Chicago’s website, launched this weekend, pulls data from the archived Environmental Protection Agency page, noting, “while this information may not be readily available on the agency’s webpage right now, here in Chicago we know climate change is real and we will continue to take action to fight it.” Emanuel is promising to build the site out more in the coming weeks, using city resources.
“The Trump administration can attempt to erase decades of work from scientists and federal employees on the reality of climate change, but burying your head in the sand doesn’t erase the problem,” Emanuel said.
Continue reading here.
Re-posted from South Side Weekly, April 12, 2017
Last August, construction started on the Jeanne Gang-designed, Chinese-funded downtown skyscraper Wanda Vista, which will be the third-tallest building in Chicago when it is completed. The building has been heavily promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, but for some, it has become a symbol for the divisive effects of globalization on local economies once reliant on now-outsourced jobs, from manufacturing and engineering, to tech support and reading x-rays.
Sam Wilson is seventy-three years old, tall and gregarious with an infectious elfin laugh. Whenever he shows up to volunteer at the Canaan M.B.C. Food Ministry in Englewood, where we work, he announces with a challenging grin, “The real man is here.” Everyone laughs.
Sam came to Chicago as part of the second Great Migration, arriving in 1960, an eager young man of seventeen from Senatobia, Mississippi. Work was easy to find back then, and he quickly landed a job as a janitor for FS Tiger, a Jewish family-owned clothing manufacturer. FS Tiger was one of many similar Chicago companies that made high quality clothing for local and national markets. Everyone needed clothing, so the work was good.
Young Sam was a good worker. “I see so much more you can do, Sam,” FS Tiger’s foreman Mr. Wagner told him—and so he was well-paid, mentored, and regularly promoted. The family came to rely on his skillful ability to cut mounds of expensive fabric with exacting detail, and often sought his guidance on how best to conduct important parts of their business. When the company was struggling, Sam saw a way to turn fabric waste into revenue by selling scraps to a cap manufacturer across the street. And so a small ecosystem flourished.
Continue reading here.
Image Source: South Side Weekly 4/12/17, photo by Steven Vance (cropped)
I’ve heard that in the future computerized AIs will become so much smarter than us that they will take all our jobs and resources, and humans will go extinct. Is this true?
That’s the most common question I get whenever I give a talk about AI. The questioners are earnest; their worry stems in part from some experts who are asking themselves the same thing. These folks are some of the smartest people alive today, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Max Tegmark, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates, and they believe this scenario very likely could be true. Recently at a conference convened to discuss these AI issues, a panel of nine of the most informed gurus on AI all agreed this superhuman intelligence was inevitable and not far away.
[ . . . ]
Human minds are societies of minds, in the words of Marvin Minsky. We run on ecosystems of thinking. We contain multiple species of cognition that do many types of thinking: deduction, induction, symbolic reasoning, emotional intelligence, spacial logic, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The entire nervous system in our gut is also a type of brain with its own mode of cognition. We don’t really think with just our brain; rather, we think with our whole bodies.
These suites of cognition vary between individuals and between species. A squirrel can remember the exact location of several thousand acorns for years, a feat that blows human minds away. So in that one type of cognition, squirrels exceed humans. That superpower is bundled with some other modes that are dim compared to ours in order to produce a squirrel mind. There are many other specific feats of cognition in the animal kingdom that are superior to humans, again bundled into different systems.
Read more here: The A.I Cargo Cult | Kevin Kelly
Jeff Vandermeer is sometimes credited with creating a new genre of ecological fiction with his Southern Reach trilogy, and the startling “Area X” which functions as the scene, action, and main character of the novels. VanderMeer doesn’t like the moniker “cli-fi,” however, and his academic readers, at the very least, can appreciate why “climate change” doesn’t account for his work. Certainly ecological change is one of the main topics of the trilogy: Area X is generally interpreted as a territory in which ecological degradation is mysteriously reversed, with terrifying consequences for humanity. But VanderMeer’s vision is broader than climate change, and this breadth of vision might begin to account for the brilliant “weirdness” of his novels.
In a published conversation with critical theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton, published in Paradoxa (volume 28), VanderMeer commented that contemporary realistic fiction which somehow manages or contains climate change within given, classical forms isn’t very realistic. Mere climate fiction, conversely, may focus on the environment while forgetting the complexities of context writ large. The ecological context is most obvious in VanderMeer’s work, but sustained critical attention to environmental issues may have distracted readers from socio-cultural themes, as well as the vulnerable bodies and fragile psyches of his characters.
VanderMeer’s work began to be associated with Tim Morton, Hyperobjects, and the Anthropocene, with the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy, in 2014, and more recently with Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Morton is also known as a proponent of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a popular philosophical mode of inquiry associated with Speculative Realism. OOO is also very interested in the uncanny and the weird. Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy meticulously illustrates the relationship between object-oriented ontology and the weird, for example, and VanderMeer could easily substitute for Lovecraft in that work, and probably should. But this association with Speculative Realism may be limited and limiting.
Though I believe it to be theoretically broad-minded, agile, and pragmatic, Speculative Realism has come to be associated, in the public sphere, with merely philosophy speculation. And though the relationship between VanderMeer and the Anthropocene, within the context of Morton’s work, has been and will, no doubt, continue to be very productive, critical commentary focusing on ecological issues, as we currently understand them, in VanderMeer’s corpus, may have the same limitations as literature which tries to contain climate change within classical literary forms. Of course the Southern Reach is about the environment, but also, more accurately, about relationships among the environment, institutions, bodies, and minds.
Steven Shaviro’s recently published review of VadnerMeer’s Borne draws attention to capitalism in the work and suggests connections to accelerationism. This attention to capitalism as an institution is faithful to the new novel, but also VanderMeer’s work as a whole. I quote at length form Shaviro’s review for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with his superb work:
The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).
Shaviro’s concept of “the future exploiting the past or the past exploiting the future” is particularly apt, at this moment, as the American fossil fuel oligarchy guarantees its “right” to extract as much wealth as possible from long-buried resources, at the obvious expense of current and future generations. But the concept is also generally true, and no one can escape the hyperobject of capital.
While accelerationists are often criticized as dystopian, anarchic, and even malicious, the “outside” stance of some environmental ideologues subtly undermines their own convictions of interconnectedness. VanderMeer’s work, including his soon to be released Borne, describes a much more intimate and complicit relationship to capital. There’s no “outside” to the meta-ecology of nature and capital in Borne, and none in the “real” world. Most of us occupy a liminal space, vulnerable to the influence and seductions of capital, even as we may deny our responsibility, and this self-deception may, in fact, be structurally necessary.
The novel has been described as the genre of the Modern human subject, which appeared, with capitalism, on the cultural scene in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Twentieth-century literature often described human subjects in existential crises, for obvious reasons, as did the “weird” Kafka, for example, and postmodern/posthuman fiction is characterized by the dissolution of the human subject as we know it. Alison Sperling’s article in Paradoxa (28), which features the conversation between VanderMeer and Morton, draws attention to the porous body in the Southern Reach trilogy, and the body as a major theme in VanderMeer’s work.
Sperling reminds us that human bodies are neither inside nor outside of the space of ecological degradation. The weirdness and threat of Area X in the Southern Reach constitutes a direct biological threat to human beings, even though the strangeness is atmospheric. When the biologist is infected with an alien spore, the contamination significantly occurs without direct contact. The atmosphere is the medium. This moment illustrates that Anthropocene bodies are vulnerable because they are non-separate from their environment. Sperling also makes the extremely astute argument that environmental threats may be complex and unmanageable, because the environment too is sick from multiple causes, related to complex human intervention. Thus the “weird” conceit, throughout VanderMeer’s work, that bodies are invaded but also became part of other organisms and/or organic systems, may “realistically” reflect current ecological conditions.
But these incursions and transformations are not limited to bodies. VanderMeer’s charcters are not merely bodily hybrids, but also psychological hybrids. As each character is contaminated they change psychologically. The introduction to Paradoxa (28) reminds us of the origins of the uncanny in Freudian psychology, and the requisite condition of uncertainty. (Freud notes that fairytales are not uncanny, for example, because they have almost no connection to reality.) Uncertainty is only remarkable within a generally predictable, certain, context. And we find uncertainty on various levels of the Southern Reach trilogy, within various levels of “reality.” As Area X is a mysterious space within a realistic setting, the characters’ psychological “symptoms” manifest within functioning psyches and more or less conventional institutional cultures. Among the most memorable psychological moments in the Southern Reach trilogy are the initial contamination of the biologist which she seems to interfere with her perceptions; Control’s darkly humorous resistance to hypnosis by screaming obscenities at his superior over the phone; and the rapturous madness of Whitby. But most intriguing is the problem of origins. Does the madness of Area X originate with an alien invasion, institutional attempts to control the invasion, human frailty, or some combination of the above? Is it a form of original sin? Is it a weapon of the invasion, collateral damage, or something else entirely?
In “Character Degree Zero: Space and the Posthuman Subject,” the first chapter of Science Fiction Beyond Borders (2016), Elana Gomel argues that the posthuman characters of contemporary science fiction are affectively “flat” because their psyches are somehow extended into the environment, rather than contained within their bodies.[i] In lieu of the pathetic fallacy of traditional fiction, in which the natural environment metaphorically reflects the internal psychological states of the characters (but remains essentially separate), contemporary science fiction is often marked by “character eversion,” a novel state in which a character’s psyche escapes the body. Eversion is also an inversion of space and character. Rather than focusing on round characters in flat worlds, posthuman science fiction presents flat characters in round worlds (6).
The affective flatness of Southern Reach characters could also be interpreted as a symptom of trauma or disassociation. Like ecology and culture, trauma may be our habitat. VanderMeer has speculated that the Gulf Oil Spill entered his psyche and became the tunnel/tower at the heart of Area X. This makes sense in the context of Gomel’s thesis. Though trauma may originate outside of the psyche and breach its barriers, it must also be externalized, because it’s categorically too big to be contained.
Returning to Gomel, the posthuman subject suggests, even demands, a posthuman politics. I quote at length from her concluding pages:
The fusion between place and character in SF can also be seen politically, as an expression of the emerging eco-consciousness. Character eversion generates subjects who give up the temporal coherence of the liberal-humanist self in favour of a more capacious and inclusive sense of belonging. They lose themselves but gain the world.
Certainly when cultural emphasis is shifted to context, the liberal human subject will be marginalized (and not a moment too soon). Gomel also makes clear that the anthropocentrism of traditional narrative discourse is no longer appropriate nor ethical:
This discourse is no longer adequate either narratively or politically. The “everted” characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures: surely an important subject in the Anthropocene age.
The sum of these critical reflections points to a broader, forward-looking ecology in VanderMeer’s work, a whole far greater than the sum of nature, consumer-capitalism, body politics, and even posthuman notions of the psyche. This bigger, emergent “thing” is not quite organic, artificial, animal, or machine, but something novel and challenging, demanding novel, challenging responses . . . which brings be back to VanderMeer’s ideas on realism and form.
Realism to date has been unapologetically anthropocentric. What would a non-anthropocentric realism look like? Visionary, uncertain, dream-like? Hard-edged, crushing, hyperreal? As the boundaries between human beings and their environment begin to dissolve, epistemologically, realism may become impossible, or at least very quaint. A kind of nostalgic, historical mode . . . leaving us with pure experience.
[i] Gomel vacillates between flat as one dimensional and flat affect. In this piece I’m referring to the latter sense of the word.
Image source: http://screencrush.com/annihilation-set-photos-garland/
NOTE: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT
Borne has been described as one of the most anticipated novels of 2017, following the success of VanderMeer’s New York Times best-selling and critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. The first novel of the trilogy, Annihilation, also attracted the attention of Paramount and Alex Garland, writer and director of the superb 2014 film, Ex Machina. Annihilation, the film, currently in post-production, is scheduled to be released before the end of the year. But neither of these feats seem as remarkable, to me, as VanderMeer’s ability to captivate and hold the attention of an academic audience, particular those in the Humanities who collectively hold writers to a standard set by well over 300 years of literary fiction in the modern languages. On its surface Borne seems like a relatively simple tale, certainly compared to the multi-faceted, deep-mapped narratives of the Southern Reach and, even more so, VanderMeer’s astonishing, and astonishingly underappreciated Ambergris series. But once you begin to examine Borne more closely, once you begin to unfold its surface layers, you may discover, in addition to a moving story, a series of meditations on age-old topics of being and becoming . . . the relationship of parts and wholes, biological growth, the development of a psyche, and the relationship of creatures to their natural environment, to name a few.
Borne is patently about parts and wholes. The population scavanges, salvages, tinkers, and trades in a chaotic array of very strange biotech. DIY meets dystopian science fiction/fantasy, but this is no dark green fantasy camp. “Human” actors are not just tinkerers; they are also tinkered with. Everyone is technically improved—more or less. This state of affairs generates unusual tension in relationships; considerable anxiety about wholeness, completeness, and authenticity; and almost compulsive soul searching. I am not what I seem . . . something’s missing . . . how did I get here . . . what is wrong with you . . . this doesn’t add up . . . did you see where I left my soul?
A less obvious tension between parts and wholes, though integral to the narrative, is the dislocation of individuals from any broader community. Borne foregrounds binary relationships, but in the context of general social collapse. The City, once dominated by the Company, disintegrates when the Company is destroyed by its own monstrous creation. This is one of the reasons academics are going to be talking about the novel. As American academic, Steven Shaviro suggests in his recent The Pinocchio Theory blog post, Borne is a startling illustration of accelerationist hopes and liberal fears.[i]
In the broken city, a diverse population of hybrids survives on biotechnical scrap. The more human creatures find distraction in the usual dystopian pursuits of drugs and violence. And while the main characters, understandably misanthropic, retreat into a dark cave, they also remain complicit in the Company’s boundless abuse, and categorically ashamed.
Though literary fiction should neither serve nor accommodate philosophy, Borne’s sustained focus on the problem of parts and wholes, at various scales, reminds us of classical and contemporary problems of mereology (the study of parts and wholes). VanderMeer’s appeal to Speculative Realism, and virtual dialogue with Timothy Morton and some of the major topics of Object-Oriented Ontology, furthermore, remind us of the very long relationship between mereology and ontology (the study of being). We create monsters out of parts, for example, but recognize them as such, perhaps, because of our intractably provincial sense of integrity.
Though every character in the novel is monstrous, the title character and the universal antagonist, Mord, are categorically more monstrous, by virtue of their scale. Borne is a briny, psychedelic, biotech blob, who grows and changes at an alarming rate. His surrogate mother just can’t keep up with him, and her boyfriend, understandably, doesn’t like the way Borne looks at him (with those eyes). Mord, is a rogue, flying-bear created by the Company to control the City. Predictably he gets too big for his britches, turns on the Company, and destroys its laboratory compound as well as its ability to control the City’s inhabitants. If the Anthropocene is an age in which human beings have substantially altered the environment, the world of Borne is a “posthuman” environment, in which human beings have fundamentally changed what it means to be human.[ii]
As a story of hybrids, Borne is also a story of folding. Human beings are folded into animals, and animals into human beings. And if we assume animals are already folded into human beings through evolutionary processes, then the technological processes of humans being folded into animals (in the novel) comprise a second fold. This figure might prompt us to wonder if human beings are also folded into animals, in a biological sense? Is the seed/code of the human present in every form of life? If not, how did we get here? Is life multiple or one? (But these are philosophical questions. Don’t pester the biologist just yet.) In any case, as Borne’s origami creatures interact with one another in an origami world, approaching, withdrawing, and turning from one another, they suggest infinite folds, a high-tech baroque fractal.[iii]
Borne, the creature, might be described as an example of technologically accelerated evolution folding in on itself. He moves from sea anemone to plant to animal to person to leviathan, and then somehow evolves into a giant, single-celled creature, before returning to his original state. Because Borne is continually changing shape and because the direction of his development is so unpredictable, he ultimately seems to occupy all points at once. Is he born or programmed to be everything at once? Is he some kind of super-complex, living hypercube? Or is he a really big mistake?
But biotech is more correctly about animals and machines.[iv] And indeed, animals are folded into machines and machines into animals on every level of the work. Most of the hybrids in the novel seem more animal-like—enhanced animals rather than enhanced machines—but perhaps we just don’t see the machine (so much) because we are vitalists (as well as speciests), conditioned to privilege familiar forms over unseen functions. A recent revival of academic interest in vitalism, from Henri Bergson to Brian Massumi, seems to point to the wisdom and virtue of “real life,” in response to, or possibly in reaction to, various AI turns. AI is generally a frustrating discourse, for outsiders, but the playful yet philosophically earnest, and extremely insightful, speculations of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing remind us that operating systems can be endlessly fascinating, and even charismatic, once you get to know them.
The overarching soft-tech, wet-ware bias of the novel seems consistent with VanderMeer’s Ambergris sensibilities, but thinking about cultural distinctions between nature and technology is inherent in all of his recent works. At what point, precisely, do simple tools become machines? What was forged in the iron age? What snaked in and out of the age of information? And why are we turning away from both at this point in time, going back to “nature” and “life,” so much so we don’t even question the value of the turn, even as we are more, and more intimately, bound up with and bound by technology?
In some ways Borne, the character, doesn’t evolve very much at all, and this might be an indication of his limitations as a hybrid. What machine, part or whole, could match the fathomless history of life? While many readers will undoubtedly become attached to Borne as a child-like figure, sacrificial lamb, and/or distant relation of Southern Reach’s Crawler, Borne remains, for the most part, an empty, inverted vessel. He can take on any form and contain multitudes because, in his absurd versatility, he remains formless and empty. He’s not really up to the task of a relationship with anyone, though there is a moment . . . of heartbreak. For some reason (it was sudden and surprising for me), we feel Rachel’s love for Borne most keenly when she is forced to abandon him. She can’t bear to leave him, but he can’t evolve beyond his monstrous impulses, though he clearly wishes he could. Grow up. Stop acting like a two-year-old. But two-year-olds don’t have regrets, and neither do machines. In the end, Borne, becomes a misfit among misfits, but also a hero, and a sacrifice. And in this sense human.
Mord is a colossal menace form the start, and seems much less complicated, but he’s also a sleeper. Once you get past the frenzy of trying to make sense of him . . . once you overcome the compulsion to put him back into the author’s psyche to understand how he was conceived and nurtured, you might discover you actually like him. Compared to Borne, Mord has too much substance, but there’s something charismatic about his matted mass. He’s solid, genuine, unapologetic . . . even sincere. You always know where you stand with him. You know he could and would stomp you, given the chance, and you know that he should. No ethical prevarication.
At the same time Mord also presents a conceptual riddle. He’s a bear—grumpy, willful, wild, and out of control. He eats and sleeps a lot, has really bad breath, and mostly bad hair days. Like Borne, biology seems to be his dominant trait. However, he doesn’t seem to have emotions (except for an undifferentiated rage, hardly recognizable as feeling). And his mode of flight, makes no sense whatsoever in an animal world.
As a flying bear, Mord is categorically mechanical, and yet barely “real.” Without the Company, it seems, he would have no reason to exist. Without their avarice, manic sense of proportion, epic resource grab, and complete lack of accountability, he would not have left the drawing board. Truly, Wick’s discarded fish, even a giant walking fish—sitting on the porch drinking lemonade—beats a flying bear, every time. I remain anxious about VanderMeer’s freedom, but admit there’s ultimately something compelling about the combination of the mammoth animal and enormous machine in Mord. Biotech at this scale becomes a difference in kind. A different kind of biotech. A different kind of novel. A different world.
The jump in scale from minnows to Mord, in Borne, invites us to first notice, then see, and subsequently reflect on the still larger, ecological scales of biotech in the novel. Not only Borne but Borne’s world is a biotechnological monstrosity. Biotechnical creatures, great and small, cannot be contained in a lab, inside a built environment, or outside of an ecological space. And biotech weapons certainly can’t be contained. Anything created in a lab is already part of the environment. There’s no inside and no outside. And before you know it, you have a toxic biological and cultural soup that can only evolve toxic creatures.
So there’s a lot more than biotech, as we know it, being folded in this dystopian laundry. There are ecological folds—water, chemicals, soil, and vegetation in unsustainable proportions. Geological folds in the salient caverns and crevices. Institutional folds within the Company. Folds in time and space, in worlds within the novel, intertertextual folds. And ecology is folded into geology, and into the ruins of culture. Time and space are folded into characters, worlds, and texts. Vandermeer’s brain, folded back on itself, unfolds freely in the text, and we too are brought into the fold. We open each drawer of this ornate cabinet, curious, reckless, guilty, but also compelled. Unfold a letter addressed to someone else, and watch incredulously, as the cyphers themselves begin to unfold.
I am not what I seem, but I made you whole. You are not what you seem. Do not forget. We can outrun them.
We can outrun ghosts?
Borne’s different scales of biotech, and stretches of the imagination may challenge fans of VanderMeer’s weird realist, Southern Reach Trilogy. One might worry that VanderMeer has wandered from his post as a virtuoso world-maker and painstaking literary craftsman. One might worry . . . if one had become too attached to the diamond-tough characters, dazzling descriptive passages, and old-world pacing of his Southern Reach and Ambergris novels. While very different from these previous works in some ways, Borne “sticks” because it emerges from and points to various directions at once. And this is both exhilarating and frightening. The compass needle spins wildly as we enter a new territory. Do I wake or dream? Am I hypnotized, or mad? Can I trust our leader? A distant shriek, barely animal. Saints preserve us.
Reading and writing fold minds over time. Communication suggests—perhaps guarantees—another type of fold. Bare existence. And conversely, bare existence might guarantee communication. We gravitate toward dialogue, even internal dialogue, with a sense of purpose, while understanding (surely) that it never ends. We can close a chapter and a book, but we can’t outrun ghosts. And even those pages we will never read, leave a trace in cultural memory. Borne is a striking moment in the ongoing conversation about our futures. An unframed original, a sacrifice, and a gift.
[i] Acclerationism is a popular socio-political concept expressing the hope and expectation that capitalism will accelerate beyond its capacity and suddenly collapse, bringing about radical change.
[ii] Though the distinctions are not at all clear in any context, the term “transhuman” usually represents an anthropocentric, futuristic ideal of overcoming human limitations, while the “posthuman” denotes a more critical or value-neutral worldview, which calls the concept of humanity into question.
[iii] I’ve borrowed this conceit from Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. However, folding and unfolding as approach and withdrawal might also be considered in the context of Graham Harman’s 2011 The Quadruple Object.
[iv] What kind of speciest would get so excited about animals being folded into humans in the first place?